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This article was first published in the November/December 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

While we may assume that successful apps reward their creators with overnight success and megabucks, the reality is that for every app that makes money, there are probably 100 or more that launch and die. The digital route for many organisations, whether small or large, is a challenging one, often littered with expensive failures and abandoned dreams. At the centre of this journey and nurturing a culture of ‘try, fail fast, learn and try again’ is the critical role of the leader.

The actions of the CEO or functional head are typically more influential than anything they may say: colleagues and employees watch how they allocate resources, how they spend their time, the way they make decisions and, of increasing importance, how they show up on social media. Wise leaders need to think through the ways in which they can have the biggest impact to get their organisation’s digitisation off the ground.

Whether the organisation is digitising a part or the whole of the business, the leader needs to have a personal social media presence and demonstrate a personal use of apps or digital services relevant to the organisation. Today’s leader cannot afford to have this as an add-on task, done after hours or as time permits; it needs to be integrated into the day job with its own goals and outcomes, and with time dedicated to it.

Ideally the leader should be able to commit to one internal and one external channel where, prompted by their communications professionals as and when necessary, they can be personally present.

As well as helping employee engagement generally, a social media presence sends a signal to current and future potential employees that this is a digital company. It also provides a source of customer and employee feedback that the leader receives raw and first hand, not filtered by well-meaning colleagues in the inner circle.

The leader’s personal practice will have a knock-on effect within the leadership team too. Top teams of established organisations are often a mix of digital pioneers and digital laggards, and the leader’s personal practice becomes a symbol that everyone needs to be involved. Digital laggards on the top team cannot be left behind, as they are the ones with the deep understanding of the mechanics of the business. The CEO who relies solely on digital pioneers does so at their peril.

Creating a safe space

Digital laggards may need more intensive confidence- and skill-building to help them feel that their contribution to the digital debate is as vital as it is in their core area of expertise. Reverse mentoring where digital natives (the mentors) are partnered one-on-one with senior people (the mentees) can help the leader learn in a safe and supportive environment. Behind closed and confidential doors, the mentee can put questions they may fear asking in front of their peers. And, of course, the mentors gain an invaluable insight into wider business themes.

As the organisation’s digital journey continues, the dynamic of the top team is likely to shift as newer – more digital – members gain an increasing share of the airtime. In the early days, learning from other organisations in the form of visits and speakers gives members of the leadership team shared reference points that help them to collaborate on digital planning. Further work to co-create the digital strategy can be informed by 24-hour hackathons or visioning sessions in which the top team are encouraged to imagine that their whole industry is digitised.

The top team will need to keep customer insights firmly at the centre of their decision-making, and they may need to become more agile in their working style. Top teams unfamiliar with the ‘agile methodology’ used by developers would benefit from seeing it in action for themselves to explore how they can replicate the collaboration enshrined in the agile principles.

Agile tech teams need to be supported by a top team as adept at killing off projects as signing off investment in new ones. To achieve this, the top team will need to be aligned in how they set digital goals and track and monitor progress. Many an organisation has wasted time and resources in support of pet digital projects that lack a clear rationale. Clear and transparent criteria - often not traditional ROI metrics but measures such as adoption - help the team stay focused and take decisions quickly in the digital race.

No discussion on leadership is complete without reference to how the leader communicates. The leader needs to convey their personal excitement about how the user journey will enhance the customer experience. This helps to bring the consumers’ needs to the attention of people at all levels, and clearly signals which activities add the most value. A message that excites people about the digital opportunities – as opposed to the response to competitive threats – is motivating, and particularly so when it is subtly but continuously reinforced.

The digital leader is a role model through their personal practice, management of the leadership team and, crucially, how they allocate resources to digital projects. They need to lead the charge personally to champion collaboration and risk taking. And to reach out to partners in the wider industry. Only this personal practice will send a signal that the business is truly up for the digital challenge.

Alison Young is a director of consultancy Leaders in Change. @Leader_Insights